The right tools for a job can make or break your quality and productivity. Here’s what my workbench looks like:
Multimeter: I have a Klein MM200 that I originally purchased for work at about $40. I liked it so much that even though I already owned two other $15 Home Depot generic multimeters, I bought one for myself. It can measure frequency, comes with a temperature probe, has back lighting, capacitance and current measuring to name a few features. One thing that I recommend looking for in a meter is an auto shutdown feature to save the batteries. Fluke multimeters are about the best in the industry, but for the price they aren’t worth it to the hobbyist.
Soldering Iron: For the longest time I used simple on/off soldering irons. Eventually I upgraded to a Weller WESD51 adjustable temperature iron. It definitely improved the quality of my work. The type of solder and flux will also make a big difference. Google something like “different types of solder” for articles. Also check out youtube for tutorials on soldering.
Oscilloscope: There are so many good high end extremely expensive oscilloscopes out there. What about decent affordable scopes? I have used the older, now discontinued, USB Oscilliscope for about 5 or 6 years now without it failing. For a few years at work I used their new USB Oscilliscope (Propscope) without any problems as well. The older one was $160 and the new one is $200 now. One word of caution, I could not get it to work with my Linux operating system. Check out this site’s extensive list of oscilloscopes and logic analyzers to see whats out there. If I were in the market for a new scope and had $350 to burn, their QA100 looks like a winner.
Digital Test Bench: The test bench I have is my power supply, frequency generator, potentiometers and a few other things when I need it. The parts I need the most are the frequency generator and the power supply. This is probably the nicest piece of equipment that I have that I don’t really need. It is a Cadet Masterlab, but mine is an older model. I have another power supply that is also adjustable and can really outperform this one as a supply (15A), and it was only something like $45 after shipping on Ebay. Ebay is great for equipment like this.
Websites for Hardware: Digikey.com is my first site for ordering electronic parts, soldering tips, solder and other stuff. Newark.com is a close second to Digikey. Personally I have found Digikey easier to search and the prices better on parts I was looking for. Mouser.com seems to have a slightly different target audience from Digikey and Newark, but there is some overlap. Mouser is nice because I have found a lot of automotive style connectors there. Searching for the right parts for a project is tricky. You have to learn how to quickly sort by price, availability, temperature and whatever else matters or else you can waste hours looking for simple things. For my projects I stick with Digikey as much as possible so that I can do one stop shopping.
Cutting Printed Circuit Boards: A good rotary tool, commonly referred to as a Dremel tool (actually a brand name, and a great brand), is amazingly handy. I have broken a Craftsman in the past. My Dremel is not too old, but I like the Dremel 4000 so far. The best attachments are the quick disconnect cutoff wheels. Great for plastic, metal, and circuit boards. Rotary tools are messy compared to a simple set of tin snips. The cut is not as clean, but you don’t end up breathing toxic badness. Versatile and cheap. Buy one. Be very stead when cutting board with them. Make sure there aren’t any traces near the cut. People usually say the tin snips are a bad idea but the cut quality is decent.
Digital Calipers: When I bought the Ebay cheapo 12″ digital calipers I have now, I did not think that they would last as many years as they have considering the price. Do not pay more than $50 for a set of digital calipers if you are just using them for hobbies. The only thing I wish mine had was an auto shutdown feature so the batteries wouldn’t get burned out so easily.